LEXINGTON, Ky. — Spring games often involve unexpected performances, and Gunnar Hoak provided just that for Kentucky.
The redshirt freshman quarterback proved he can play, and that’s one of three takeaways we had from Friday night’s Blue-White game.
1. There’s depth at quarterback
Hoak not only impressed, but he outplayed presumptive starter Stephen Johnson. Not much can be taken from that, and Johnson’s job is by no means unstable, but Hoak proved that Kentucky has depth at quarterback.
Hoak saw action for both the Blue and White teams, but his cumulative line was 16 of 24 through the air for 174 yards and two touchdowns. He had another touchdown and 17 yards on the ground.
“That’s what I’ve seen from Gunnar all spring,” quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. “He’s a quiet guy. He’s not a guy that comes out and is very vocal. He doesn’t say a lot, but he is really doing a good job of doing what I tell him to do, understanding the offense and he went out today and made a lot of good throws.”
Hoak will likely contend for the second-team quarterback spot along with Drew Barker, who didn’t play in the spring game and is still working his way back to full health. But the trio of Johnson, Barker and Hoak is a solid one.
“I told you guys I wanted to have at least three quarterbacks who could win for us at the SEC level,” Hinshaw said.
Does he have that?
“I believe so. I really do.”
2. Young linebackers impressed
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson said Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator Matt House wanted to see who would perform when the lights came on. The lights literally came on in Friday night’s spring game, and Watson stepped up.
“I feel like Jamar really made some stride,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that, with reps, you could see he has the ability and he has a good understanding. You heard me talk many times about the nuances of that position, and I like where he’s at.”
Watson excelled as a pass rusher for the White team, sacking Stephen Johnson three times. Whistles blew the plays dead before contact, but Watson said he would’ve had all three sacks had it been full contact.
“I haven’t played a real game since high school,” Watson said. “That felt real good to get out there and show what I can do.”
Watson wasn’t the only young linebacker who impressed. Freshman early enrollee Jamin Davis led all defenders with eight tackles.
“You saw that on film when we recruited him — you saw him here,” Stoops said of Davis. “He’s a guy that takes the game very serious. He works at it, he’s gaining weight, he’s getting stronger, but he’s got the instincts to play linebacker.”
3. Punting is a problem
Sophomore Grant McKinniss averaged 36.7 yards on seven punts. He averaged 39.2 yards per punt last season, the worst qualified average in the SEC.
The more glaring problem during the spring game was that no one was coming after McKinniss. There wasn’t a rush, and it looked more like practice than game speed on special teams. But the extra time didn’t help.
“Yeah, we’re building on it,” Stoops said. “We need to punt the ball better. Grant needs to punt it better. He needs to continue to work.”
Graduate transfer Matthew Panton will soon be added to the mix. Panton, from Australia, punted for Columbia last season and could compete right away for the starting job if McKinniss continues to struggle.